LONDON (Reuters) - Determined to reveal the India behind the glitz and glamour of its economic boom, Sonia Faleiro spent five years immersed in the brothels of Mumbai - befriending bar dancers, transsexuals and policemen.
Faleiro, originally from Goa, has lived and worked in India for most of her life. In a culture where “the middle class is our new obsession,” she was frustrated by the lack of reportage and representation in the public sphere for marginalized groups.
She made a name for herself writing about the high incidence of suicide in rural areas among farmers plagued by debt. After watching a TV report about dancers in Mumbai she became keen to learn more and asked a source in the industry if he would introduce her to some dancers.
And so she met Leela, the highest paid dancer at a Mumbai club called Night Lovers who would become the subject of her book, “Beautiful Thing.”
Through Leela, readers gain a moving insight into an industry which employed 75,000 women in Mumbai alone, before being outlawed in 2005.
In an interview with Reuters while in London as part of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival, Faleiro said that she met a number of people who she thought merited a book, but chose Leela for her fighting spirit in spite of her suffering as the right woman to tell their story.
“She was very intelligent, vivacious and aware of how she is perceived, by people in and outside the barline,” Faleiro said. “She was interesting to me because I knew that any bar dancer would have suffered a great deal to have got to the point that they were comfortable working in the bar. For Leela to be so joyful, kind and generous made me want to probe further.”
The encounter turned into five years of friendship intertwined with research for Beautiful Thing, during which Faleiro met Leela’s family, friends and an underworld network stretching from politicians to brothel owners.
During this time she interviewed women in the early hours of the morning, immersing herself in a subculture of Mumbai which few are aware of to its full extent, thriving in the evening to disappear until the next.
She described the experience as intimidating, and heartbreaking - but also invigorating.
“A lot of very powerful emotions that one doesn’t tend to feel on a daily basis, certainly not simultaneously.”
Leela ran away to Mumbai to become a bar dancer after her father began to sell her into prostitution to local policemen.
One might find it impossible to categorize Leela’s story as one of exploitation or empowerment, but Faleiro says she thinks it is the latter.
“When you live in India and work on a story like this the exploitation is immense and across the board,” she said.
The author said such stories are countless in India.
“But Leela gives you the sense that no matter what life throws at her, no matter how many times it endeavors to hand her defeat she refuses to accept it, which makes her an incredibly powerful role model considering her background - and actual powerlessness.”
She recalled offering Leela a job with a charity which would have earned her a couple thousand rupees a month, to which she responded: “Is that how much you think I am worth?”
Beautiful Thing is part of a growing trend in South Asian nonfiction. Faleiro believes it is powerful as a medium which is harder to ignore and finds it surprising that books about the underclass don’t constitute a larger share of the genre.
“We apparently think that 55 percent of the population isn’t relevant to where we are going.”
Nonetheless, she is optimistic about her country’s future.
“It is a remarkable ascent for a country that was so recently independent. I would caution that India should look less to its place in the world and more to the position of people within India itself. I’m optimistic but only if we manage our ambitions and responsibilities better.”
Edited by Paul Casciato